14th November 1999

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State of a nation

The separate news items that there was a mass exodus in the Wanni, with around 40000 people leaving Vavuniya, and that the Minister of Health was promising armed guards in the hospitals to guard nurses from the aggression of attendants, may say something about the state of the nation just before elections next month in December.

The swelling refugee camps and the ongoing face - off between the nurses and the attendants in national hospitals, which is degenerating almost by the hour into farce, depict symbolically at least the problem in maintaining authority that is faced increasingly by this government. The basic poser is that the government's writ doesn't always run. It doesn't run in the most vital geographical regions of the country, and it doesn't run in some of the most vital institutions of the nation as well.

The tendency for the civil administration in the country to disintegrate has been manifest during the tenure of this government since it first took office five years back, and the Wanni exodus and the situation in the hospitals make it clear that after almost its entire term is up the government still struggles to maintain its writ in parts of the country where it is vital that its authority be retained.

The situations in the Wanni and the national hospitals are different, and have different antecedents, but they are telling in that they explain a basic weakness of a dispensation that does not seem to be able to come to grips with the reality that maintaining authority is vital for civic confidence in governance.

The government encouraged worker strikes at the beginning of its term , and was rewarded with sporadic disruptions of work that disabled vital institutions from time to time during the entirety of its tenure, almost. Continuing strikes in vital national institutions showed that the government did not seem to have a handle on matters regarding labour policy management. The government's trick seemed to be to meet strikes with ad hoc policy measures, but that trick never worked. In the main, though the situations are different it is civilian life that is disrupted by the farce in the national hospitals, and the situation in the Wanni where refugee camps are said to be packed to capacity while more civilians are on the march. The disruption of the civic fabric cannot be taken by any government as a matter of course, but that is exactly how the current dispensation seems to react to the large scale disruptions of civilian life due to its inability to maintain its writ in areas and establishments in which conflict is rife.

It was bad enough losing territory in the Wanni to the LTTE, but, to lose the ability to maintain civilian life in a larger area in the province is an indictment on the center which has not been able to establish peace and stability despite the rhetoric about ending the conflict in the North and East. The fact is that the situation has exacerbated, though the fondest hopes of the government has been to the contrary. There is a burgeoning state of instability in the country, though it may not be overtly manifest . But creeping destabilisation may be as dangerous as manifest instability, especially if there doesn't seem to be a policy to curtail the destabilisation that is emerging from certain pockets of civilian life which seem to be under threat from various brands of lawless forces.

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